Posted by: bkivey | 6 August 2016

Bad Day at the Office

On 27 July the Orlando Sentinel reported that a man was arrested for possession of methamphetamine (meth) with a firearm. The man had entered a 7-11 where drug activity was known to occur, and was pulled over when he failed to come to a complete stop on exiting the parking lot, and for driving 42 mph in a 30 zone.

When the man opened his wallet to retrieve his license, the officer noticed that he had a concealed carry permit, and the man said he had a gun. When asked to exit his car, the officer noticed white flakes on the floorboard.

“I recognized through my eleven years of training and experience as a law enforcement officer the substance to be some sort of narcotic,”

Wrote the arresting officer in her report. Two roadside drug tests confirmed police suspicions. The man was arrested, booked, and spent 10 hours in the county lockup before he made bail. So far, so routine.

Whatever the man’s traffic offenses may have been, the white flakes in his car were pieces of donut glaze; a substance legal in all US jurisdictions. A Florida Law Enforcement Department (FDLE) lab test confirmed that the man was in possession of crystalline sugar, not crystal meth.

So an innocent citizen is arrested, spends a few hours in jail, and the state drops the charges (bet he still hasn’t gotten his gun back). While embarrassing for law enforcement, these things happen. But the inappropriate arrest is only half the story.

Recall that officers tested the substance twice using field testing kits. In any sufficiently large testing sample, false positives will occur. For two false positives to happen back-to-back indicates problems with the test, the training, or the procedure. Or this man was subject to a wildly improbable coincidence. The story notes that The New York Times reported FDLE field drug testing yielded false positives for meth 21% of the time. That’s an enormously high error rate. And yet, a spokeswoman for the FDLE stated that the agency has no information about the prevalence of false field tests. Another spokeswoman for the Orlando Police Department wrote:

“At this time, we have no responsive records. … There is no mechanism in place for easily tracking the number of, or results of, field drug testing.”

This is bald-faced incompetence. One of the basic tenants of process management is to ensure that the process is in control. If you want to ensure that the process (field drug testing) is yielding the desired result (provide evidence for prosecution) then you have to ensure that the error rate is within allowable boundaries. For the Orlando police, that very much means having a “mechanism in place for easily tracking the number of, or results of, field drug testing.”

Considering that 1 in 5 field drug tests used by Florida law enforcement are not usable for prosecuting meth crimes, I cannot think that the process is in control. And if 20% is an allowable error rate, that’s a lot of people arrested for something they didn’t do, not to mention the wasted resources throughout the criminal justice system.

The worst part is the seeming ho-hum attitude on the part of law enforcement. From the story I don’t get any sense of urgency to address the problem. It seems a 20% failure rate for a tool used to help determine whether someone goes to jail is acceptable. I don’t know if other law enforcement agencies have such lax standards for field drug testing, but if they do, they are part of the problem.

An Arachnid Adventure

I drove to the store last week, not noticing that a spider had started a web between the driver’s side mirror and door, as spiders will do. After pulling out of the driveway, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, glanced over, and saw a spider trailing from the mirror on a strand of silk. I wasn’t going too fast, and the spider was trying to climb up the strand to the mirror. As speed increased, the spider hunkered down on the streaming strand with all eight of its legs holding on for dear life. Every time I’d slow down, the spider would climb a bit closer to the mirror. You just know the spider was wondering what the HELL was going on. It was building a web, minding its own business, when out of nowhere it finds itself in a windstorm.

The spider survived to my destination. When I stopped, it immediately climbed the remaining distance to the mirror, where it disappeared behind the glass, and with a great story to tell at the bar.

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